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Free Study Guide for The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

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The General Prologue (continued)

Companions of the Prioress

Another nun who functioned as her chaplain and 3 priests accompanied the Prioress.

Notes

The nun and one of the priests will relate tales. They are fleetingly mentioned in the ĎGeneral Prologueí and their character only develops through their respective tales.

The Monk

The Monk was in charge of the monasteryís estates and loved hunting. He was an able man who was fit to be an abbot. His stable had many fine horses. The Monk was the keeper of the lower houses. He found the rule of St. Maurus and of St. Benedict old and constrictive. He lived entirely according to the new manners of the world and allowed himself greater liberties. He didnít care a straw about the text, which said that hunters are not holy men and that a Monk who neglects his duty and discipline is like a fish out of water. He didnít believe in making himself mad by studying books or toiling with his hands as commanded by St. Augustine. The Monk was a keen rider and had swift greyhounds. He loved to track and hunt the hare. The sleeves of his coat were trimmed with the finest gray fur in the land. His hood was fastened under his chin with an intricate gold pin. His bald head shone as glass and his face shone as if anointed with oil. He was very fat and his eyes gleamed like a furnace under a cauldron. Chaucer says that he was a good prelat (church official) and loved to eat a fat roasted swan.

Notes

The Monk, Daun Piers, is an outrider; i.e. he looks after his monasteryís estates. He is a perfect candidate for the post of an abbot. This post was generally reserved for those of noble birth instead of for the truly devout and pious. This reflects that the Monk, like the Prioress, is born in a good family. He loves the good life and takes delight in hunting. He possesses thoroughbred hounds and wears the finest clothes that money can buy. Moreover he does not care about the details of St. Benedictís rule. He finds more pleasure hunting outside rather than devoting himself to study within his cloister. Chaucer is the master of irony and ostensibly agrees with the Monkís point of view. The result is that the reader comes to an entirely different conclusion about the Monk. It is evident that the Monkís way of life is a gross violation of his monastic vows. The Monk would have made a better administrator of the monastery instead of being entrusted with the task of ensuring the spiritual welfare of the people.


The Friar

The Friar was a jovial and merry man. He was a limiter i.e. a Friar licensed to beg within certain limits. He had mastered the art of small talk. He had arranged the marriage of many young women after seducing them himself. He was a pillar of the church and familiar with the frankeleyns and worthy women of the town. He was licensed to hear confessions and granted absolutions easily. He believed that gifting silver instead of prayers and remorseful tears is the best way to show repentance. His hood was overstuffed with knives and other trinkets to give the good women. He had a merry voice and could sing and play very well on the harp. He was well acquainted with the taverns in town and knew every innkeeper and barmaid better than anyone, since it wasnít profitable to deal with poor people. The Friar was the best beggar in his order and was always able to extract money from people. The proceeds of his begging were far greater than the rent he paid to the church. He wore a double-breasted cloak and lisped in affectation to make English soft on his tongue. His eyes twinkled brightly in his head as the stars in a frosty night. The Friar was called Hubert.

Notes

The Friar numbers among Chaucerís portraits of the corrupt clergy. There were four orders of Friars in the medieval age: the Dominicans, Franciscans, Carmelites, and Augustinians. Friars were mendicants and wandered from place to place and had the authority to hear confessions. Chaucerís Friar is a hedonist and well acquainted with the wealthy and the powerful. Moreover he is lascivious and has seduced many young women with his sweet talk and the trinkets that he always carries in his hood. He is obviously an important member of his order. However he is more worldly than spiritual. Chaucer ironically says that he is the best Friar while meaning the exact opposite.


The Merchant

The Merchant had a forked beard, was dressed in motley and rode a high horse. He wore a Flemish beaver hat and his boots were clasped elegantly. He gave his opinions on English policy very pompously and these opinions were always dictated by his idea of what would be good for trade and lead to an increase of his own profits. He firmly believed that the sea between Middleburgh and Orwell should be guarded at all costs. He profitably sold French crowns called "sheeldes" that he received in exchange for his goods. He was very dignified in the management of his affairs and nobody knew about his debts. Although he was a worthy man Chaucer doesnít know his name.

The Clerk

There was also a serious Clerk of Oxford who had devoted himself to the study of logic. His horse was as thin as a rake. The Clerk was a very thin man. He wore a threadbare upper coat since he didnít have any source of income. He spent all that he got from friends on books and learning and prayed earnestly for the souls of those who gave him the means to study. He was very studious and didnít speak more than what was required. The little the he spoke was full of moral meaning. He would gladly learn and also teach gladly.

Notes

The Clerk is among Chaucerís idealized portraits. There is no irony in his description. Chaucer has deep admiration for the Clerkís serious devotion to his study of philosophy.

The Sergeant at Law

The Sergeant at Law was a careful and wise lawyer. On many occasions he had been appointed directly by the king to serve as a judge. His skill and wide reputation had earned him huge fees and lavish presents. He always sought unentailed ownership of land. He seemed busier than he actually was. He remembers all the cases and decisions which had occurred since King Williamís time. He had the skill to draw up a legal document with the perfect phrasing. He could recite every statute by heart.


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